Sunday, October 6, 2013

Tales of Pirx the Pilot

Unlike the whimsical fantasy of The Cyberiad, these five stories attempt to portray space travel realistically during a time of routine interplanetary voyages.

There are no aliens, no space battles. Instead the plots turn on malfunctioning equipment: a short circuit, a burnt-out condenser, a "loose charge" in a CRT screen.

Although the stories are more than 40 years old and often sound dated, the overall effect is not as negative as one might expect.

The attempt at realism has already been undercut by the author’s use of a likeable but somewhat bumbling hero, and by language that is often folksy and jocular, resulting in a semi-comic feel. At one point Pirx wonders:

"What were those rockets firing, anyway? Dumplings?"

It's an odd but interesting combination, and gives the stories a retro feel (e.g. a pilot smoking a cigarette on his acceleration couch, his ship "a relic of atomic architecture" with "scars of old radiation leaks") that goes well with the subversive use of humour, whose purpose (I think) is to camouflage a deep pessimism. If space travel becomes possible, it will only give us a larger stage on which to demonstrate our shortcomings.

The Test – The opening story is the most comedic, with Pirx a chubby cadet who must take a ship to the Moon and perform a series of maneuvers, during which he is tormented by a couple of flies.

The Conditioned Reflex – Pirx is assigned to a Moon station whose construction was marked by bickering and wrongheaded engineering decisions. Pirx and his partner are replacing two men who died under mysterious circumstances, and unexpectedly find themselves recreating their final moments. This is the longest story in the book and the Moon is described in great detail.

On Patrol – Two men are lost on patrol, and Pirx comes close to suffering the same fate.

The Albatross – While travelling in a luxury liner, a distress call is received and Pirx becomes witness to a disaster in space. In the middle of a botched rescue effort, the passengers want to know when they can resume dancing.

Terminus – Pirx is assigned to a rebuilt tub following an accident in which the entire crew perished, save a robot now suffering from post traumatic stress. It has "oily wrists" and is "so old it was almost blind and deaf." One of its duties is looking after the ship's mice, which are used as "live radiation gauges." The story and the book end with the following observation:

[Pirx] began thinking about the innocence of machines, about how man had endowed them with intelligence and, in doing so, had made them an accomplice of his mad adventures. About how the myth of the golem – the myth of the machine that rebelled against its creator – was a lie, a fiction invented by the guilty for the sake of self-exoneration.

More Tales of Pirx the Pilot

The original Tales of Pirx the Pilot was first published in 1966. The English translation arrived in 1979 but contained only half of the stories. The remainder appeared in 1982 under the title More Tales of Pirx the Pilot.

Pirx is now an older and more respected figure but the mishaps continue, mainly due to human foibles and a misplaced confidence in technology.

Pirx's Tale - While hauling space junk from Mercury to Earth, Pirx witnesses an abandoned alien craft making a swing through the solar system. Unfortunately his ship is so beaten-up that "every lift-off or landing was a violation of the laws of physics," and his crew has just come down with the mumps.

The Accident - In the only story that takes place beyond the solar system, Pirx is "stuck in the mountains of an utterly worthless planet" with two feuding colleagues. Just as their mission is coming to an end, a robot fails to return from a routine task. When they go out in search of it, Pirx makes surprising discovery, one that he keeps to himself.

The Hunt - Damaged in an accident on the Moon, a mining robot turns a laser on its makers. Pirx is one of several men sent out to destroy it, but when he comes face-to-face with it he finds danger coming from a different direction.

The Inquest - In the longest and most complex of the stories, Pirx is on trial for an accident that occurred on a flight to Saturn, during which he was to test a new model of robot -- in fact, an android indistinguishable from a human being. During the flight several crew members attempted to tip off Pirx about the robot's identity. One person even claimed that he himself was the robot, and gave reasons why he wanted to fail. Who could Pirx trust?

Ananke - The first of a new class of super-freighters crashes while attempting to land on Mars. Was it a freak accident or does the same fate await the next two ships already en route?

Pirx also appears in a later novel, Fiasco.

Official website